Friday, July 18, 2008
UNDANG REMBAU ABDULLAH DAHAN (1922 - 1938)
Undang Rembau Dato' Sedia Raja Abdullah Dahan
DATO' SEDIA RAJA ABDULLAH BIN DAHAN
Nationalism and Reform during the Reign of Dato Abdullah (1922–1938)
Many of the social and cultural currents that reverberated throughout Rembau and the rest of Negeri Sembilan in the twenties and thirties can be gleaned from the aspirations and accomplishments of Dato Abdullah (bin Haji Dahan), Rembau's Undang from 1922 through 1938 and a man remembered in contemporary Rembau as a gallant statesman and modernday culture hero.
As with many other intellectually promising boys of gentry birth, young Abdullah received British encouragement and financial backing to attend an English-language school, the elite Malay College at Kuala Kangsar. This was the normal course for upwardly mobile Malays of gentry background seeking employment in the civil service. Abdullah's long-range goals, however, were much loftier, and led him to seek training in medicine. Had he pursued his education in Hong Kong, as was discussed at one point, he might have been among the very first Malays to receive tertiary training outside the colony, not to mention one of the earliest Malay doctors. But since both his father and the British authorities took a dim view of this plan, it was decided instead that he should go to Singapore and study medicine to become an assistant surgeon. It is not entirely clear from the material at my disposal whether Abdullah actually went to Singapore following his graduation from the Malay College at Kuala Kangsar. If he did, his stay there was relatively brief, lasting less than three years—for in 1922 the twenty-year-old Abdullah succeeded to the office of Undang upon the bankruptcy and ensuing resignation of Dato Haji Sulong bin Ambia.
Periuk tembaga, milik Dato' Abdullah yang masih boleh dilihat di kediaman rasminya di Kg. Chembong, Rembau.
― 111 ―
The circumstances surrounding Abdullah's succession to office are likewise somewhat vague, although British correspondence written when he was a mere seventeen years of age refers to his "quite unusual ability, . . . ambition, determination and intelligence"; it also mentions that he was expected to be the next Undang of Rembau. He was of course born into the appropriate clan, the Sediaraja, and of wealthy parents, at least one of whom had been to Mecca. Moreover, since he was the nephew of a high-ranking clan official of Sungei Ujong, Dato Bandar Said, he may well have been groomed for Rembau's highest office from an early age. Viewed historically, however, it is of greater significance that intellectual and academic achievements in an English-language institution had become key qualifications for the Undangship. This situation was certainly a far cry from that prior to British intervention, when military prowess had been a decisive factor both in succeeding to office and retaining power thereafter. But, at the risk of stating the obvious, the balance and exercise of power had shifted dramatically with British administration, and the skills and competences required of indigenous leaders were very different from those demanded of their forebears during the precolonial period. Abdullah was thus eminently qualified to become Rembau's eighteenth Undang, for in contrast to the vast majority of his predecessors, his battles were waged not by force of arms along the rivers of Rembau but via memoranda, formal petitions, and council proceedings couched in the language of bureaucracy and addressed for the most part to colonial officialdom.
In short, the young man who came to be known as Dato (Sediaraja) Abdullah personified a new generation of Malay leadership and served to articulate and galvanize the sentiments and aspirations of an increasingly cosmopolitan, though still overwhelmingly rural, Malay society. When Dato Abdullah rose to office, most Malay boys living in Negeri Sembilan had ready access to modern Malay-language education and attended classes on a fairly regular basis. There were in addition numerous secondary institutions in the Peninsula by this time, although these existed for the benefit of the indigenous political elite and their untitled gentry counterparts, not for the children of "mere peasants" with commoner pedigrees.
The privileges and incentives that Negeri Sembilan's gentry clans received in the area of secondary schooling and government loans bestowed new meanings on, and likewise fostered the perpetuation of, traditional distinctions based on descent—this despite the fact that government policies also emphasized achieved status over ascriptive criteria. More important, whereas many of the educational opportunities made available to Malays aimed at providing the British with a well-born class of potential clerks, assistant magistrates, and other civil servants, the demand for education and bureaucratic posts soon outstripped all administrative requirements for native manpower. This posed no real problem for those content to pass their lives as farmers, but there was considerable dissatisfaction and frustrated ambition on the part of their brethren who sought white-collar employment or other avenues for social advance. The situation was aggravated, moreover, by the fact that petty trade and most forms of commerce were by this time controlled by Chinese, who predominated in all towns and quickly outnumbered Malays in the state as a whole (see chapter 4).
The problems stemming from the existence of a colonized Malay peasantry with a smattering of formal education—and among them a select few with white-collar credentials but no opportunities to practice their newly acquired skills—led to endless debate within British officialdom and among the Malay elite. Dato Abdullah, for example, lobbied vociferously for the establishment, in Rembau and elsewhere, of additional trade schools and English-language institutions, which would lay the foundations for a more informed and prosperous peasantry and a larger and better trained corps of potential administrators and professionals. The future well-being of the entire Malay race was quite rightfully said to be at stake, and to hinge directly on the educational policies of the British. Unfortunately, however, Dato Abdullah's proposals met with steadfast resistance from colonial administrators. The problem, as articulated some years earlier by the Director of Education in Negeri Sembilan, was that "the stream of Malay boys now flooding our English schools is alarming. There will not be clerkships for them all." They would certainly be ashamed "to dig," he claimed, adding, "I am sure that the Dato Rembau will see there is a grave risque [sic ] in bringing English to the doors of an agricultural population" (NSSSF  668/26; cf. NSAR 1934, 19; NSAR 1935, 21).
Dato Abdullah's efforts at change ranged well beyond the arena of formal education. He also helped to found within Negeri Sembilan various cooperative and self-help societies geared toward the material and spiritual betterment of rural Malays. Voluntary associations had been cropping up in towns and metropolitan areas throughout the Peninsula since the turn of the century. These typically took the form of self-improvement societies, cultural welfare organizations, literary groups, sports clubs, and the like (see NSAR 1931, 32; NSAR 1933, 35; Roff 1967). The activities and products of these associations had the effect of stressing the commonalities shared by all Malays—most notably, identification with Islam, communication in the same language, and a valuation of symbols and traditions defined in relation to adat. At the same time, however, and owing to regional differences throughout the Peninsula in dialects as well as adat symbols and conventions, these voluntary associations ensured that Islam would emerge as the most pertinent of these commonalities and ultimately the most powerful in generating and galvanizing pan-Malayan sentiment (Roff 1967).
Dato Abdullah also sought to discourage villagers' participation in various syncretic rituals and to foster a critical reassessment of long-sacrosanct cultural axioms underlying Malay belief in local spirits. Dato Abdullah's official position on territorial spirits and sacred shrines (keramat ) can be ascertained from articles he wrote and published in the 1920s ([Dato] Sedia Raja Abdullah 1925, 1927). One of these pieces provides a brief overview of the more revered keramat beings (glossed "saints") that were held to exist in Rembau during the 1920s; it concludes on the following note:
Such is the influence of these saints on the overwhelming majority of the Malays and it is needless to add that this influence is a lamentable obstacle to their economic, spiritual and moral advancement. Though Islam recognizes no intercessors between man and Allah, the relics of the pre-Islamic "Days of Ignorance" survive and will continue to exercise a disastrous influence so long as Malays are ignorant of the fundamental teachings of their religion and remain indifferent to the benefits of secular education. It is gratifying to note that for the rising generation primaeval beliefs are slowly but surely disappearing. ([Dato] Sedia Raja Abdullah 1925, 104)
Dato Abdullah's diatribe on keramat and their spirit guardians was but one of many such attacks in the early decades of the century that struck at the heart of village notions of propriety and sanctity, and all in the name of Islam. Dato Abdullah's successor, Dato Haji Ipap, shared Dato Abdullah's views on village syncretism (though he appears to have lacked the reformist zeal of many other modernists of the late 1930s and later). During the first part of his lengthy reign (1938–1962), Dato Haji Ipap convened Rembau's clan leaders and local-level Islamic theologians to emphasize that the week-long berpuar rituals (held every three years to enlist
the intercession of benevolent beings seen as capable of vanquishing evil spirits responsible for agricultural failures) were inconsistent with the teachings of Islam and best discontinued. By 1943 he had taken to fining clan chiefs for allowing their kin to participate in this ritual (BUR[M]  1103). These actions did not result in the immediate discontinuation of the rituals, nor did they seriously undermine, let alone cause the renunciation of, beliefs in these rituals or associated spirit cults. The fact remains, though, that Dato Haji Ipap's position on berpuar not only placed him in opposition to clan leaders, shamanic specialists, and the adat of the rural majority, but also reinforced the conceptual bonds linking the highest members of the indigenous elite with the institutions and ideologies of Islam. The interrelationship of adat and Islam was now seen ever more strongly in terms of contradiction rather than complementarity.
Successive waves of Islamic theologians trained in the early 1900s in Kedah and Kelantan, and more recently in Egypt and Saudi Arabia, have also encouraged villagers' acceptance that various adat traditions are outmoded, against the teachings of Islam, and incompatible with progressive economic change. Moreover, extensive institutional supports bolstered these men's endeavors; indeed, each and every phase in the development of Islamic administrative hierarchies saw more traditional prerogatives pass from clan spokesmen to Islamic magistrates and other state-backed officials acting in the name of Islam.
Trends along these lines contributed to the polarization of adat and Islam. So, too, did subsequent crises that exacerbated antagonisms between Malays and Chinese and simultaneously politicized Islamic symbols and idioms, giving them greater centrality in Malay culture. (EXCERPT FROM SCHOLARSHIP EDITIONS)